The ideal sexual morality in America is quite different from reality, a fact indicative of a country that's losing the will to maintain its principled roots. That disconnect, however, may be the last best hope for elevating sexual intimacy to a higher standard.
A shifting culture is a natural branch of an organic society, and that's not inherently bad. Many developments are neutral — think fluctuating preferences in apparel, food or national pastimes. Some changes are positive, like expanding rights or better access to information. Others, however, are troubling.
For example, a majority of Americans have sex before cohabiting or getting married, according to 2018 data from the Deseret News American Family Survey. That isn't news to anyone observing cultural shifts of the past 60 years. The odd thing is Republicans, black Democrats, adults over 65 and religiously affiliated people still profess the proper relationship sequence starts with marriage and then moves toward sex and children.
Hypocrisy? Maybe. At least white Democrats, nonreligious folks and the younger generation are upfront about idealizing sex outside of marriage. Yet, dismissing the disconnect as mere hypocrisy — an act to look the part while indulging in pleasure — doesn't give enough recognition to the many who still believe the more traditional sequence yields the best outcomes.
That belief is still powerful in light of the bleak reality that America seems to be losing its will to maintain a shared sense of sexual morality. As Ross Douthat writes, we've inhabited "a realm of fleeting private pleasures and lasting social isolation, of social peace purchased through sterility, of virtual sex as the opiate of the otherwise sexually unsuccessful masses."
Douthat surmises neither conservatives nor liberals have realized their extrapolated vision of the sexual revolution — unrestrained sexual desire hasn't brought the country to its knees, but neither has it led to any greater fulfilment. We're stuck in a sexual bog of mediocre individual gratification.
In short, what we've been building is a fast track to second-rate living.
Two recent and fantastic expositions underscore this point. The first is a piece in Politico Magazine by Tim Alberta titled, "How the GOP Gave Up on Porn," and the second is Kate Julian's cover story for The Atlantic titled, "Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?"
Alberta writes how eliminating pornography, once a professed ideal of the Republican party, fell off the table as the high-octane filth moved to the internet. Its utter ubiquity has left no hope in lawmakers to fend off its negative societal effects. They've lost the will to do anything about it.
What's happened between Americans and porn in the past few decades is a microcosm of what's happening with other sexual trends.
The result is, as Julian indicates, a sexless America. Sure, teen pregnancies have plummeted, which is obviously a great thing, but it also means a waning interest in any real and lasting intimate relationship. Instead of a hookup culture, we're seeing an isolated sex culture for one.
Natural consequences include fewer babies, something economists and demographers might promulgate as a harbinger of catastrophe. More poignant consequences, however, are that humans miss out on the emotional, spiritual and physical elevation accompanying intimacy with and commitment to a lifelong partner, and children miss out on the stability afforded them when a household is built on the covenants of matrimony.
Is there any hope for pulling the country out of the bog? Well, yes, and it starts with people believing we still have moral standards. As long as we retain the words to profess our ideals and express our unhappiness with dangerous sexual trends, writes Douthat, we won't have strayed beyond the precipice.
So that disconnect between the ideal relationship sequence and what Americans actually live is really cause for celebration. At the very least, it means we still recognize the value of committed relationships and reserving life's sacred powers for use within the bounds of sacrifice, faith, devotion and love. It means we believe the social science affirming the right relationship sequence matters in the long haul.
We may not live what we believe, and that's a shame, but we still believe it, and believing is our last best hope for maintaining a sense of moral discipline.